The first thing to strike you about these two hardback volumes is their size: 1700 pages, and we still have the final part of the Baroque Cycle trilogy, The System of the World, to come. I would caution against arm-wrestling any Neal Stephenson fans anytime soon.
The man himself has said online that -
‘In my mind this work is something like 7 or 8 connected novels. These have been lumped together into 3 volumes because it is more convenient from a publishing standpoint, but they could just as well have been put all together in a single immense volume or separated into 7 or 8 separate volumes,’
and having read them I’m inclined to agree. There isn’t a middle section of the Baroque Cycle that feels as though it’s marking time until the next important event – most of the Cycle consists of important events, or at least relevant ones. In fact, I’m left wondering how Stephenson plans to wrap up his cycle because it has a refreshingly organic feel to it, a real-life roughness around the edges that suggests ‘And they all lived happily after’, won’t come into the equation.
So we have the quantity, what about the quality? Well, to quote Stephenson’s Leibniz: ‘”I love reading novels,” the Doctor exclaimed. “You can understand them without thinking too much.”’ (Quicksilver, p.435) This is patently not true of these novels, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The main character, at least to begin with, is Daniel Waterhouse: Natural Philosopher, member of the Royal Society, old college friend of Isaac Newton and scion of a soon-to-be-notorious Puritan family, bearing in mind that Quicksilver begins in 1655, just five years before the Restoration of Charles II. Actually, this is not quite true; Quicksilver properly begins in 1713, with the rather mysterious Enoch Root (who materialises throughout both books) visiting Daniel at his Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts (number of staff: 1, students: 0), before we cut back for what must surely be one of the longest flashbacks in literature, since it has yet to conclude by the end of The Confusion.
Leap forward to page 339 and we meet the second of our major viewpoint characters, Jack Shaftoe (known as ‘Half-Cocked’ Jack due to a ruinous earlier accident in the trouser department) and his more sensible brother, Bob. Both poverty-bred Cockney ‘mud-larks’, dragged up rather than raised, as my mother used to say. Against all odds they have done all right for themselves; not ‘well’, but in this context ‘all right’ means merely that they are at least both alive, healthy and in the army. Fortune seems to alternately dump upon them both from a great height and briefly flash them a cheeky grin, before zooming upwards to gain more even altitude. If Daniel is our privileged eye upon the political and scientific developments of the 17th century, then Bob and Jack are our rough and horny hands upon its actual lands and people.
A vital third character, Eliza, about whom I shall remain deliberately vague, first appears in Jack’s narrative roughly a third of the way through Quicksilver, but she eventually graduates to her own separate (though still occasionally intertwined) plot strand, and offers a vitally bourgeois counterpoint to those of Daniel, Bob and Jack.
The Baroque Cycle roams across the physical, spiritual and intellectual realms of the 17th century with a hearty anarchic wanderlust that simply must be read to be believed. No possible summary of the plot can do it justice without either rendering it far too dry or spoiling much of the surprise. What is undeniable is that the breadth and depth of study and research that must have gone into creating this truly baroque 17th-century world truly boggles the imagination. No end of fascinating, startling and idiosyncratic facts come flooding from Stephenson’s pen to fill these pages, from the development of the scientific method to sailing, metallurgy, courtly fashions at the court of Louis XIV and (but of course!) code-breaking and rudimentary computer programming. If nothing else, you’ll come away from the Baroque Cycle a slightly better-educated person, more appreciative of the intelligence and resourcefulness of our ancestors, and certainly with a far better understanding of the roots of our present society.
This is not to say it’s always a gripping read, for whilst my inner geek found many of the deep draughts at the font of knowledge endlessly fascinating, there were a significant number of other sections that seemed quite the contrary: long, dry missions across a desert of story. For me it was mostly those dealing with the precursors of modern commercial institutions and finance (but then, I completely failed A-level Business Studies), which suggests to me that most people will find at least some parts of these books tiresome. Which parts will doubtless depend upon your particular areas of interest and curiosity, but this reviewers’ interest tended to wax and wane, sometimes quite dramatically.
Fortunately one aspect of Stephenson’s writing that has remained reliably with him is his humour – still as dryly observational as ever and still as likely to have you burst out laughing when you least expect it. I was given to forgive quite a few apparent extracts from the Financial Times because of this!
Something I found very out of the ordinary about these two novels (and presumably, the third) is related to the lack of science fiction or fantasy elements in the story. Although Neal Stephenson has previously been known (and published) as a science fiction writer, the Baroque Cycle is being published by a mainstream publisher as a mainstream title; in which case you may ask why are these books being reviewed here?
What, I think, brings these books under the remit of VECTOR [this review was originally written for VECTOR] is their style. They’re written very much in the science fiction idiom, but without any of the genre trappings. Whether mainstream readers notice it or not I think it’s really rather important to recognise that at the moment sf seems to be filtering into the mainstream more through its literary approach rather than through its big ideas and traditional subjects. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is one of the other most pertinent examples - a very conventional story told by an alienated narrator to a wise reader. The Baroque Cycle rather reverses all of these positions somewhat; unless, that is, your knowledge of history is vastly better than the average 21st century readers’, but the sf narrative style functions equally well either way.
Stephenson’s novels have always been heavy on the ideas, positively creaking under their load of information. Although in the past this has mostly taken the form of speculation about the future, it was with Cryptonomicon that Stephenson obviously began the start of a process of turning away from the future towards the past – of a way of seeing the past differently to conventional historical fiction however, because he sees the past as an alien place that most of us know really very little about and understand even less. Stephenson shows us something about the present through the lens of the past, just as sf shows us the present through the lens of the future.
The past here is an alien place – it’s as strange and complicated and repulsive and marvellous as any future or planet, and it’s reported as such. Although - as with most sf - we have a human viewpoint, these are not viewpoint people necessarily like us. Stephenson’s main concession to our understanding is to give Daniel and some other members of the Royal Society some decidedly modern opinions. Relativity and atomic theory are also postulated at various junctures – although, pleasingly, it is Eliza who proposes relativity, and then only as a literary device rather than a scientific theory. It is a nice ‘in-joke’ amidst a small handful of others that I caught on to. These books do often require a significant amount of work by the reader, but it’s ‘good’ work, rewarding work – for example, it’s not ‘difficult’ purely for the sake of verisimilitude. Stephenson uses some olde spellings and enjoys tossing a few archaic terms into the text here and there; 17th-century grammar (such as it was) is not rigorously adhered to, but used carefully and sparingly to gently remind us where and when we are.
But the big question about any piece of literature that has taken up almost two months of your life must be: was it worth it? And I think it has been - for the most part. It isn’t perfect and may be rather self-indulgent; but although at times frustrating, meandering and opaque, the Baroque Cycle is far more often wonderfully ambitious, shamelessly cerebral and preposterously adventurous. Stephenson’s skill as a writer has grown by an order of magnitude, such that you have to wonder what his next trick will be. In terms of sheer joie de vivre, scale and density of ideas it knocks spots off any other ‘literary fiction’ you’re likely to read this year, and possibly this decade.